It was November 7th, 2007, the second working day of our Mobile Health trip to VN that year, the day of the near-riot, when we had to close down almost an hour to defuse the situation. Our fearless but angst-filled leader Phuong Chau was standing on the outdoor corridor of the Medical Center at Binh Minh village, looking out at the crowd of people pushing and fighting trying to get in, mumbling or grumbling to herself and whoever was standing next to her, which happened to be me, "This is bad, I don't know why I do this every year."
Of course, I've heard this sentence almost every year since I first accompanied Phuong Chau to VN in 1994, so I leaned over and interrupted her musings with, "You know why you do it, but if you need to hear it, I'll remind you when we get back to Cali".
She turned to me and said, "You promise?"
So there I was sitting at the computer at midnight on December 20th, 2007, after the kids and the hubby had gone to bed, after the Christmas cards have been sent, the shopping finished, trying to fulfill a promise to an old friend.
The truth is, Phuong Chau, I don't know why you do all that you do for SAP-VN and why you go to VN every year. Everyone has a different reason. Some of us do it out of a sense of duty, a sense of guilt that we have gotten so much in our lives and we needed to give back something to others less fortunate. Some of us do it for the fun, the friendship, the love of travel, the sense of accomplishment that we make a difference in someone's lives.
I can certainly tell you why I go on these Mobile Health trips whenever I can. In fact, I can only tell you a fraction of the reasons why I go. Because there are so many reasons, some of them are too deep for me to explore in my own psyche, some of them may have been lost in the distance of memories, but they leave behind some residuals, impressions that continue to shape who I am.
These are some of my reasons for going back to Vietnam time and again:
An old woman grinning with pitch-black, shiny teeth, waving. A little girl standing with cotton in her mouth, holding a stuffed animal to her chest. A beautiful poem hand-written in Vietnamese by a doctor at the clinic in purple ink, pressed under the glass of the desk where I sit. A little boy with swollen abdomen from parasites. A man and his two water buffaloes, as seen from a hotel window. Squealing pink piglets in their baskets, riding on the back of a motorbike. Warm sweet ginger tofu from a deaf street vendor.
A middle-aged woman with no breath sound on the right and a bullet scar on her breast.
The sound of roosters crowing at 2 am, 4 am, and 6 am, outside the hotel bedroom window. The reflection of a red setting sun on flooded rice fields. A man in a wheelchair, legs were blown off in a Con Son prison. The stark white of a crane's wings on bright green rice fields. Pink and white lotus blossoms on a pond. The loud heart murmur in a young man with end-stage cardiomyopathy. Two little boys on their water buffaloes. Sweet red bean porridge from a roadside stand. The rash on a rice farmer's feet and ankles. Little kids running around the village with their new toys that we brought. The ducks and ducklings waddling across rice fields. The sound of Trinh Cong Son's songs from the van's radio.
Old men and women smiling in their new glasses. A child with a huge head from hydrocephalus.
The cool sand on the beach at Cua Dai. The village with a large number of "funny looking kids" from malnutrition. Bright red betel nut juice in the old women's mouth. The best-tasting beef sandwich from a roadside cart, ever. Rough, red roads that seem to lead to every village in Central Vietnam, some with giant potholes, and large mud puddles.
Hours of sitting in motorboats passing through houses and villages flattened by a hurricane.
An old couple in tattered clothes, the husband blinded, deaf, and had two amputated arms and one amputated leg, the wife with large cataract on one eye. A herd of cows walking in the middle of the road. Plates of snail and clam shells in Saigon The warm water of the ocean in Nha Trang. The smell of fish sauce from the third story of a house in Mui Ne A young man in skin and bones, just released from a TB asylum.
Little purple flowers on the roadside.
Van Cao’s music on the television. Delicious roasted rats in Ca Mau.
A woman who lost 3 sons out at sea in the typhoon.
White flowing dresses and crisp white cotton shirts on school grounds. Rivers and streams and multitudes of bridges all over the South.
Barbecued corn way up a mountain in Khanh Hoa. Bright pink dragon fruits on cactus vines in Long An Two young girls born without eyelids, with shrunken legs, whose parents carried them on their backs for miles to come and see the doctors from America. Excited children in a village gathering to get their pictures taken. The monks of Hue. The nuns of Quang Nam.
The sound of propaganda from the loudspeaker truck at 5 in the morning in Cao Lanh.
An old man requesting more nasal sprays.
Dirty faces after a bus ride to Phan Thiet.
The taste of cao lau and mi quang in Hoi An, banh beo in Hue, banh tam bi in Dong Thap, hu tieu in My Tho, xoi bap inDong Thap, all the “lau” soups……
These and a million other experiences are why I go to VN on the Mobile Health Unit. The sights, and sounds and tastes, and feel of each trip are different but blend into each other to form a cohesive and lasting impression of Vietnam. It is a different, much deeper level of seeing and knowing my ancestral homeland than the guided tours we’ve all been on.
Even through the riots and near-riots, the emergencies and fake emergencies, whether we are arguing with each other until one of us snaps, or laughing together till our ribs hurt, there has never been a bad day in Vietnam for me. I come home from each trip a thousand times richer and, as you can see, I still carry and treasure each and every one of those experiences. We all do. It just takes a picture or some words of reminiscence, and they will all come flooding back.